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Trade-offs are Inevitable: Considerations for Our Energy System

By Evelyn Teel

It is easy to think of energy as simply a commodity that makes our lives easier – by fueling our cars, keeping our homes comfortable, and powering our many devices. However, what if we sought to understand the more fundamental role energy plays in our lives? How would this reframe the conversation around the conflicting demands on our energy systems?

These questions and more are at the heart of Kenneth P. Green’s book Abundant Energy: The Fuel of Human Flourishing. In this small but dense tome, he discusses a variety of topics and encourages the reader to think more deeply about his or her own values and priorities regarding energy systems and the policies that govern them.

First, a few caveats. The book is nearly a decade old (published in 2011), so some of its content and assertions are either out of date or have been proven incorrect in the intervening years. The author also largely sidesteps around climate change issues, which have become more prominent in the past decade. However, this does not diminish the value in understanding the overarching points in the book.

Green starts from the premise that external energy sources are so intrinsically linked with human lives that we have, in fact, evolved along with our use of them. The first power source our human ancestors were able to harness – fire – instigated evolutionary changes that shaped the future of our species. Much of what it means to be human, from our cognitive abilities to our physical structure, our digestive system to our hormonal system to our social structures, evolved in concert with our ability to harness fire and, later, more sophisticated forms of energy.

The book focuses on the topics noted below and encourages readers to think critically about what we take for granted in our energy system, how we can improve that system, and what trade-offs we are willing to make to facilitate those improvements.

Energy Affordability

Whereas we often think of our energy costs simply in terms of our utility bills or how much it costs to fill up our gas tank, the reality is that energy costs impact nearly everything we buy and use. There are, of course, direct costs, like electricity or natural gas service at our house or gasoline for the car. There are also indirect costs, which include the energy used to produce all of the goods and services we consume. There is an inverse relationship between income and the percentage of income spent on direct and indirect energy costs – disproportionately so. This means that any increase in energy prices is borne by those least able to absorb the additional costs. This relationship holds true not only within the United States, but also worldwide – poorer nations are more affected by increasing energy costs than are richer ones.

Energy Reliability

Most of the time, we take for granted that when we need electricity, natural gas, propane, gasoline, or other forms or sources of energy, we’ll be able to access them easily. When these systems fail, we are presented with a stark reminder of how essential they are to our lives.

In the case of the 2003 East Coast blackout, millions of Americans and Canadians were left without power for up to two days. Not just electricity was out – communication and transportation systems were inoperable. Other utilities, such as water, were affected. The event cost the economy billions of dollars. The 2003 blackout is an extreme example, but even much shorter blackouts can have negative effects and incur huge costs.

All of this underscores the importance of energy reliability. Consistent availability of power is what enables our society to function. When applying this thinking to fuel sources and how we can ensure energy availability, it is important to understand the capacity factor of various sources – i.e., the percentage of time a particular type of generation operates at full capacity. Some fuel sources can generate full power nearly full time (such as nuclear), while others operate more intermittently (such as solar). For more information about capacity factor, please check out two of our previous blog posts: and

Energy and the Environment

The majority of the world’s pollution comes from developing nations, and the best way to help curtail their emissions may be to help those countries expand their economies. Green argues that for every environmental resource – energy-related and otherwise – there is an optimal usage level that balances sustainability and economic growth. A society will generally overshoot that level at first, then correct and moderate its usage over time. The key factor in ensuring that a society can moderate its consumption of a given resource is whether it can afford to do so. With economic growth comes the ability to focus on priorities apart from basic survival, as well as the capacity to develop new, more efficient technologies.

Energy System Inertia and Momentum

All systems have momentum. Once a decision is made to proceed in one direction, each progressive step makes it harder and harder to backtrack. This is resonantly true in our energy system. Our electric generation capacity has been built based on certain criteria, and is intended to last for decades. The workforce has been trained within specific parameters. Our society has developed technology, architecture, manufacturing, and much more around the energy system that is currently available. This is not to say that the way we generate, distribute, and use energy must remain static. It does, however, require an understanding of the secondary effects of any changes, and an evaluation of the cumulative costs associated with those changes.

Green also touches on the topics of energy independence and security and the danger of unintended consequences. He highlights the various trade-offs we would need to be willing to make in order to ensure energy independence, such as ramping up fuel extraction in the US and accepting the environmental consequences of increased energy production at home.

Finally, every decision can (and likely will) have unintended consequences. In the realm of energy policy, these unintended consequences can be huge, affecting the lives of millions of people both domestically and abroad. Perhaps the best way to fully understand, evaluate, and resolve these unintended consequences is to test many, varied possible solutions to a given issue. Implementing broad, sweeping solutions without sufficient testing can bring consequences that may do more harm than the original solution was intended to solve.


The environment, climate change, and energy policy are hot topics these days, and it is important to have a general understanding of the different priorities and trade-offs in the energy realm. Which is more important: reducing carbon emissions; keeping energy costs low, particularly for the sake of our less affluent neighbors; ensuring power is available reliably; something else entirely; or a combination of all of these? Identifying (personal) priorities or guidelines for thinking about energy changes can help focus our thinking on individual topics. This book certainly does not cover every aspect of these issues and the many others we need to better understand (nor could any one book do so). However, it is a good starting point to understand several factors regarding energy policy.

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For Baseload Energy with No Carbon Emissions, Look (Way) Down

By Evelyn Teel

When discussing renewable energy, the conversation often revolves around wind and solar. These are very visible energy sources – we often see solar panels in our neighborhoods or wind turbines on hilltops. However, there are many other types of renewable energy resources operating or being developed around the world. 

As we try to increase the percentage of renewable energy in the mix, it will be essential to develop technologies that balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the biggest challenges with wind and solar is their intermittent nature – they will not be able to provide dispatchable power until significant improvements have been made in energy storage technology. 

One energy resource that is available throughout the country on a constant basis is the heat  that exists in the earth’s crust. In some parts of the country, such as Northern California, high temperatures are found fairly close to the surface, and this geothermal source is used to generate electricity. Outside of the United States, Iceland has significant geothermal resources, which are used to heat 90% of their households as well as for many other uses ( 

Geothermal is actually a very old source of energy for humans. We have used hot springs for warmth and healing for tens of thousands of years. More than a hundred and twenty-five years ago, the first geothermal district heating system was created in Boise, Idaho, where it heated homes and businesses. In 1904, the first geothermal power plant was developed in Tuscany, Italy ( Recent and ongoing advances are increasing the range of locations in which geothermal energy can be accessed and used.

The temperature gradient, or rate at which temperature increases as you drill farther into the crust, is not consistent throughout the country. In some areas it is necessary to drill much farther before reaching the temperatures generally required to use geothermal energy to produce electricity. However, innovators are working to hone the techniques and technologies that will allow this renewable resource to be leveraged in more areas. This means developing the capacity to drill farther into the ground, or learning to work with lower temperature geothermal resources. If the geothermal heat is intended to be used for space or water heating, it generally does not need to be at quite as high a temperature as would be required for generating electricity. 

The graphic below, from the paper “Integrating Geothermal Energy Use into Re-building American Infrastructure” by Jeff Tester, Tim Reber, Koenraad Beckers, Maciej Lukawski, Erin Camp, Gloria Andrea Aguirre, Terry Jordan and Frank Horowitz, presented at the World Geothermal Congress 2015 (, shows estimated temperatures throughout the United States at a depth of 5.5km. As you can see, by that depth (just less than 3.5 miles), much of the country is estimated to be at a temperature of at least 125 degrees Celsius, which is sufficient for space heating, water heating, and other purposes.

The logistics of an enhanced geothermal system (or one in which water is pumped into the ground to be heated) entail drilling two wells in parallel, several miles into the ground. Water is pumped into one well; once it reaches the bottom, it is warmed by the surrounding rocks. The heated water is then pumped back up the second well. Depending on the temperature, the water may be so hot that it comes out as steam that can be used to turn a turbine to generate electricity, or it may pass through a heat exchanger so that it warms another fluid that is then used to heat buildings or put to other uses.

At Cornell University, researchers are working to develop an enhanced geothermal system, also called Earth Source Heat, that could heat the campus’s buildings using (relatively) low temperatures such as are available throughout much of the country. Though further research and testing are still required, demonstrating the efficacy of such a system could open the door for further deployment of such systems around the country and the world. For more information on the work happening at Cornell, check out their website:

Geothermal energy is often confused with applications involving ground source heat pumps. However, the two are very different. Geothermal energy involves extracting heat from the earth. Some of this heat remains from the original formation of the earth. Some is a result of the radioactive decay over millions of years of elements deep within the earth. Geothermal energy applications are large scale projects that tap into this heat source through wells drilled several miles below the surface of the earth. Ground source heat pumps, on the other hand, are much smaller applications that use the relatively constant temperature of the near subsurface of the earth (10 to 500 feet) as a heat sink for residential and small commercial heating and cooling applications.  

Moving to a renewables-based energy mix will require a variety of resources that complement one another and serve the full range of energy needs throughout the country and the world. Geothermal energy has quite a few positives, including that it can provide baseload power, it generates no carbon and basically no pollution, and the generation sites require a very small footprint. It is a great complement to the more intermittent sources of energy as well as those that are only available in limited geographic areas. This is quite an exciting time, as we witness the resurgence of old energy sources and the development of new ones. 

Interested in learning how you can benefit from today’s low energy prices? Call or email us today and we’d be happy to help you explore your options.

The Avalon Advantage – Visit our website at, call us at 888-484-8096, or email us at

Please feel free to share this article.  If you do, please email or post the web link.  Unauthorized copying, retransmission, or republication is prohibited.

Copyright 2020 by Avalon Energy® Services LLC